Arthur Calwell’s last hurrah, Vietnamese dictator Ky and Kirribilli House in the stinking hot Sydney summer of 1967


Bob Gould

Labor loses the 1966 election in a landslide – a khaki election fought around the then popular Vietnam War. The Labor leadership of Arthur Calwell is on the skids but he’s still defiant. Vietnam’s Marshall Ky announces a state visit. Calwell agrees to address a protest against the war.

Saturday, at 10am, it’s hot under the Bridge. I’m one of the leaders of the the Vietnam Action Committee (VAC). The crowd decides to march from the meeting to Kirribilli House. The logistics turn out hairy. There’s a split road, with a high part, a low part and a concrete wall separating them. Tom Uren MHR is up on the high part, with the chief copper and a megaphone, trying to persuade us to disperse. I am young and agile in those days, and climb up the wall and demand the loud hailer from Uren and the copper. They are too surprised to refuse. Humphrey McQueen remembers the crowd being transfixed by my impudent climb. I infuriate Uren and the copper by telling the crowd that we should continue the march down to Kirribilli House and confront the police protecting the dictator, but without violence. The copper can’t get the loud hailer back because I’m on the other side of the fence. There’s a kind of three-way split among the demonstrators. Uren preaching dispersal, Gould hanging off the wall proposing confrontation without violence, and some anarchists down the back, including one who’s now a Labor MP, and another who is now a successful academic, yelling out “rush the pigs” and suchlike.

Suddenly we are gazumped. A lone figure on a surfboard paddles into view, down below Kirribilli House, with a placard on his “Get out of Vietnam”. The hullabaloo quietens. We are all transfixed as the Water Police pursue this courageous lone ranger around the bay. He eludes them. Eventually they apprehend him and drag him, roughly, into the police launch. This transcending incident, the growing line of police and the increasingly fierce midday sun defuse the demonstration, more than Uren’s pleas. We disperse.

Danny Torsh (married name, Danny Humphries) rushes up to me, uncharacteristically distraught. She tells me “that’s Max down there, we’ve got to get him out”. Max Humphries was the education officer of the Sydney University SRC, a big, athletic, gentle, dreamy, blonde man, deeply angered over the war. Danny was his partner. She was a confident, intense woman of Jewish background.

(Later, Max was the centre of the so-called “Humphries Affair”. Max led a student demonstration, with Hall Greenland, editor of Honi Soit, against library fines. A thousand students occupied the library for several days, and admin expelled Humphries, which caused further turmoil on campus. Two notable reactionary academics, Stove and Armstrong, published an intelligent letter in the Sydney Morning Herald, directed at the administration, pointing out that in the social atmosphere of student discontent, the adminstration risked precipitating a “Red Revolution” if they persisted. Admin wisely backed down, and Humphries was readmitted.)

I was the noisy, more-or-less responsible leader of the VAC. If someone got pinched, I had to get them out. Danny and I got into her tiny car and we raced into the Star Hotel, near Trades Hall, and borrowed some bail money from the friendly publican. We raced around, trying to track down where they’d taken Max. It took us all afternoon and most of the evening to get him out. The coppers were carrying on as if he had made some kind of assault on Kirribilli House, but that was the atmosphere of the time. Danny and I were a pretty good team, chasing round trying to get Max out. We’d done that kind of thing together before, and we could both be quite aggressive. Danny played the part of the tearful wife very effectively in the cause of liberating Max.

Eventually, we got him out on bail, a bit the worse for wear, but basically intact, at about 10pm. They took off, and I went to the pub where we used to gather after demonstrations, but most people had gone.

Sydney’s weather in summer is still fierce. Mark Latham has pledged to liberate Kirribilli House from Prime Ministers, and turn it into a place of public recreation. Ky chose this January to make his peace with the current regime, and visited his country for the first time since he escaped from Vietnam in an American helicopter. Ky has upset reactionaries in the US by his new mission of achieving a settlement with Vietnam and encouraging trade. Between Ky’s visit to Vietnam and Latham’s proposals for Kirribilli House, the proposed refugee demonstration for Easter, and the continuity of Sydney weather, there’s quite a lot that resonates in 2004 with 1967.

What I remember most, however, is the righteous anger that those 10,000 demonstrators felt against the Vietnam War. We were unquestionably right. I remember with real nostalgia that time when Max and Danny and myself and Tom Uren, and our anarchist friends up the back were a good deal younger. Whatever we’ve done subsequently, the best part of our lives was when we were united, despite our differences, in genuine comradeship, as part of the minority that became the majority against the then popular, but totally unjustified, Australian involvement in Vietnam.

First published in Honi Soit, March 2004


Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: